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TWENTY-FOUR

Skink said he was sorry, and turned away. Joe Winder and Carrie Lanier scrambled to disengage, tearing the fishnet suit to strings.

"I heard noises," said Skink. "Thought there might be trouble."

The adrenaline ebbed in a cold tingle from Winder's veins. Breathlessly he said, "How'd you know I was here?"

"Followed you from the apartment."

"In what the bookmobile?"

"I've got friends," Skink said.

While Joe Winder fastened his trousers, Carrie Lanier dived into a University of Miami football jersey. Skink turned to face them, and Carrie gamely shook his hand. She said, "I didn't catch your name."

"Jim Morrison," said Skink. "The Jim Morrison."

"No, he's not," Winder said irritably.

Carrie smiled. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Morrison." Winder considered her cordiality amazing in view of Skink's menacing appearance.

Skink said, "I suppose he told you all about me."

"No," Carrie replied. "He didn't say a word."

Skink seemed impressed by Joe Winder's discretion. To Carrie he said: "Feel free to stare."

"I am staring, Mr. Morrison. Is that a snake you're eating?"

"A mud snake, yes. Medium-rare." He took a crackling bite and moved through the trailer, turning off the television and all the lights. "A precaution," he explained, peeking out a window.

In the darkness Carrie found Joe Winder's hand and squeezed it. Winder said, "This is the man who saved my life a couple weeks ago the night I got beaten up, and you gave me a lift."

"I live in the hammocks," Skink interjected. "The heavy rains have brought out the snakes."

Winder wondered when he would get to the point. Carrie said, "Can I ask about the red collar? Is it some sort of neck brace?"

"No, it isn't." Skink crouched on his haunches in front of them, beneath the open window. The highway lights twinkled in his sunglasses.

"Events are moving haphazardly," he said, gnawing a piece of the cooked reptile. "There needs to be a meeting. A confluence, if you will."

"Of whom?" Winder asked.

"There are others," Skink said. "They don't know about you, and you don't know about them." He paused, cocking an ear toward the ceiling. "Hear that? It's the plane. They've been tracking me all damn day." Carrie gave Joe Winder a puzzled look. He said, "The rangers from Game and Fish it's a long story."

"Government," Skink said. "A belated pang of conscience, at tax-payer expense. But Nature won't be fooled, the damage is already done."

Sensing trouble, Winder lurched in to change the subject. "So who are these mysterious others?"

"Remember that afternoon at the Amazing Kingdom, when a stranger gave you something?"

"Yeah, some old lady at the Rare Animal Pavilion. She handed me a note and then I got my lights punched out."

Skink said, "That was me who slugged you."

"What an odd relationship," Carrie remarked.

"My specialty," Joe Winder said. Then to Skink: "Can I ask why you knocked the door down tonight? Your timing stinks, by the way."

Skink was at the window again, lurking on the edge of the shadow. "Do you know anyone who drives a blue Saab?"

"No "

"Because he was waiting at your apartment this morning. Big Cuban meathead who works at the park. He saw you arrive." Skink dropped down again. He said to Winder, "You were driving the young lady's car, right?"

"She loaned it to me. So what?"

"So it's got a parking sticker on the rear bumper."

"Oh shit, you're right." Joe Winder had completely forgotten; employees of the Amazing Kingdom were issued Petey Possum parking permits. Each decal bore an identification number. It was a simple matter to trace the car to Carrie Lanier.

"I need to go to fugitive school," Winder said. "This was really stupid."

Carrie asked Skink about the man in the blue Saab. "Did he follow Joe, too? Is he out there now?"

"He was diverted," Skink said, "but I'm sure he'll be here eventually. That's why we're leaving."

"No," Winder said, "I can't."

Skink asked Carrie Lanier for a paper napkin. Carefully he wrapped the uneaten segment of mud snake and placed it in a pocket of his blaze rainsuit.

He said, "There"ll be trouble if we stay."

"I can't go," Winder insisted. "Look, the fax lines are already set up. Everything's in place right here."

"So you've got something more in mind?"

"You know I do. In fact, you've given me a splendid inspiration."

"All right, we'll wait until daybreak. Can you type in the dark?"

"It's been a while, but sure." Back in the glory days, Winder had once written forty inches in the blackness of a Gulfport motel bathroom a Royal manual typewriter balanced on his lap. This was during Hurricane Frederic.

Skink said, "Get busy, genius. I'll watch the window."

"What can I do to help?" Carrie asked.

"Put on some Stones," said Skink.

"And some panties," Winder whispered.

She told him to hush and quit acting like an old prude.


While the tow truck hooked up the Saab, Pedro Luz forced himself to reflect on events.

There he was, waiting for Winder to come out of the apartment when here comes this big spade highway patrolman knocking on the window of the car.

"Hey, there," he says from behind those damn reflector shades.

"Hey," says Pedro Luz, giving him the slight macho nod that says, I'm one of you, brother.

But the spade doesn't go for it. Asks for Pedro's driver's license and also for the registration of the Saab. Looks over the papers and says, "So who's Ramex Global?"

"Oh, you know," Pedro says, flashing his old Miami PD badge.

Trooper goes "Hmmm." Just plain "Hmmm." And then the fucker jots down the badge number, like he's going to check it out!

Pedro resists the urge to reach under the seat for his gun. Instead he says, "Man, you're burning me. I'm silting on a dude out here."

"Yeah? What's his name?"

Pedro Luz says, "Smith. Jose Smith." It's the best he can do on short notice, with his brain twitching all crazy inside his skull. "Man, you and that marked unit are burning me bad."

Trooper doesn't act too damn concerned. "So you're a police officer, is that right?"

"Hell," Pedro says, "you saw the badge."

"Yes, I sure did. You're a long way from the city."

"Hey, chico, we're in a war, remember."

"Narcotics?" The trooper sounds positively intrigued. "This man Smith, he's some big-time dope smuggler, eh?"

"Was," Pedro says. "He sees your car sitting out here, he's back in wholesale footwear."

"Hmmm," the spade trooper says again. Meanwhile Pedro's fantasizing about grabbing him around the middle and squeezing his guts out both ends, like a very large tube of licorice toothpaste.

"Don't tell me you're gonna run my tag," Pedro says.

"Nah." But the trooper's still leaning his thick black arms against the door of the Saab, his face not a foot from Pedro"s, so that Pedro can see himself twice in the mirrored sunglasses. Now the trooper says: "What happened to your finger?"

"Cat bite."

"Looks like it took the whole top joint."

"That's right," says Pedro, aching all over, wishing he'd brought his intravenous bag of Winstrol-V. Talking high-octane. Same stuff they use on horses. One thousand dollars a vial, and worth every penny.

Trooper says, "Must've been some cat to give you a bite like that."

"Yeah, I ought to put the damn thing to sleep."

"Sounds like a smart idea," says the trooper, "before he bites you someplace else."

And then the sonofabitch touches the brim of his Stetson and says so long. Like John Fucking Wayne.

And here comes Winder, cruising out of the apartment with an armful of clothes. Gets in the car not his car, somebody else's; somebody with an employee sticker from the Kingdom and drives off with the radio blasting.

Pedro Luz lays back cool and sly, maybe half a mile, waiting until the cocky bastard reaches that long empty stretch on Card Sound Road, south of the Carysfort Marina. That's where Pedro aims to make the big move.

Until the Saab dies. Grinds to a miserable wheezing halt. A Saab!

Pedro Luz is so pissed he yanks the steering wheel off its column and heaves it into a tamarind tree. Only afterwards does it dawn on him that Mr. X isn't going to appreciate having a $35,000 automobile and no way to steer it.

An hour later, here comes Pascual's Wrecker Service.

Guy lifts the hood, can't find a thing. Slides underneath, zero. Then he says maybe Pedro ran out of gas, and Pedro says don't be an asshole. Guy pulls off the gas cap, closes one eye and looks inside, like he can actually see something.

Then he sniffs real hard, rubs his nose, sniffs again. Then he starts laughing like a fruit.

"Your friends fucked you up real good," he says.

"What are you talking about?"

"Come here and take a whiff."

"No, thanks," Pedro says.

Guy hoots. "Now I seen everything."

Pedro's trying to figure out when it happened. Figures somebody snuck up and did it while he was talking to that hardass trooper. Which means the trooper was in on it.

"Did a number on your engine," says the tow-truck man, chuckling way too much.

Pedro Luz grabs him by the arm until his fingers lock on bone. He says, "So tell me. What exactly's in the gas tank?"

"Jack Daniels," the guy says. "I know that smell anywhere."

So now Pedro's watching him put the hook to Mr. Kingsbury's Saab and wondering what else could go wrong. Thinking about the monkeys and shithead burglars and what happened to Churrito. Thinking about the black state trooper busting his balls for no reason, and how somebody managed to pour booze in the tank without Pedro even knowing it.

Pedro thinks he'd better shoot some horse juice in his arms as soon as possible, and get tight on Joe Winder's ass.

In one of his pockets he finds the scrap of paper where he wrote the decal number off the car Winder was driving. It's not much, but it's the only thing he's got to show for a long sorry morning.

So Pedro tells the tow-truck guy he's going to ride in the busted Saab on the way to the shop. Use Kingsbury's car phone to make a few calls.

Guy says no way, it's against company policy. Gotta sit up front in the truck.

Which is not what Pedro wants to hear after such a shitty day. So he tackles the guy and yanks his arms out of the sockets one at a time, pop-pop. Leaves him thrashing in the grass by the side of the road.

Jumps in the tow truck and heads for the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills.


The Mothers of Wilderness listened solemnly as Molly McNamara recounted the brutal assault. They were gathered in the Florida room of Molly's old house, where a potluck supper had been arranged on a calico tablecloth. Normally a hungry bunch, the Mothers scarcely touched the food; a huge bacon-cheese ball lay undisturbed on a sterling platter a sure sign that the group was distracted.

And no wonder: Molly's story was appalling. No one dreamed that the battle against Falcon Trace would ever come to violence. That Molly had been attacked by thugs in her own apartment was horrifying; equally unsettling was her lurid description of the finger-biting episode. In disbelief, several of the older members fiddled frenetically with the controls to their hearing aids.

"Obviously we've struck a nerve with Kingsbury," Molly was saying. "Finally he considers us a serious threat."

One of the Mothers asked why Molly had not called the police.

"Because I couldn't prove he was behind it," she replied. "They'd think I was daffy."

The members seemed unsatisfied by this explanation. They clucked and whispered" among themselves until Molly cut in and asked for order. The lawyer, Spacci, stood up and said it was a mistake not to notify the authorities.

"You're talking about a felony," he said. "Aggravated assault, possibly even attempted murder."

One of the Mothers piped up: "It's not worth dying for, Molly. They're already clearing the land."

Molly's gray eyes flashed angrily. "It is not too late!" She wheeled on Spacci. "Did you file in federal court?"

"These things take time."

"Can you get an injunction?"

"No," said the lawyer. "You mean, to stop construction? No, I can't."

Molly drummed her fingers on the portable podium. Spacci was preparing to sit down when she jolted him back to attention: "Give us a report on the blind trust."

"Yes, well, I talked to a fellow over in Dallas. He tells me the paperwork comes back to a company called Ramex Global, which is really Francis Kingsbury "

"We know."

" but the bulk of the money isn't his. It's from some S & L types. Former S & L types, I should say. Apparently they were in a hurry to invest."

"I'll bet," said one of the Mothers in the front row.

"They moved the funds through Nassau," Spacci said. "Not very original, but effective."

Molly folded her arms. "Perfect," she said. "Falcon Trace is being built with stolen savings accounts. And you people are ready to give up!"

"Our options," the lawyer noted, "are extremely limited."

"No, they're not. We're going to kill this project." A worried murmuring swept through the Mothers. "How?" one asked. "How can we stop it now?"

"Sabotage," Molly McNamara answered. "Don't you people have any imagination?"

Immediately Spacci began waving his arms and whining about the ramifications of criminal misconduct. Molly said: "If it makes you feel better, Mr. Spacci, get yourself a plate of the chicken Stroganoff and go out on the patio. And take your precious ethics with you."

Once the lawyer was gone, Molly asked if anyone else was having doubts about the Falcon Trace campaign. One board member, a devout Quaker, fluttered his hand and said yes, he was afraid of more bloodshed. Then he made a motion (quickly seconded) that the Mothers telephone the police to report the two men who had attacked Molly.

"We don't need the police," she said. "In fact, I've already retained the services of two experienced security men." With both hands she motioned to the back of the room, where Bud Schwartz and Danny Pogue stood near an open door. Danny Pogue flushed at the introduction and puffed his chest, trying to look like a tough customer. Bud Schwartz focused sullenly on an invisible tarantula, dangling directly over Molly McNamara's hair.

Eventually the Mothers of Wilderness quit staring at the burglars-turned-bodyguards, and Molly resumed her pep talk. Danny Pogue picked up a spoon and sidled over to the cheese ball. Bud Schwartz slipped out the door.


In a butcher shop near Howard Beach, Queens, a man known as The Salamander picked up the telephone and said: "Talk."

"Jimmy gave me the number. Jimmy Noodles."

"I'm listening," said The Salamander, whose real name was Salvatore Delicato.

"I got Jimmy's number from Gino Ricci's brother."

The Salamander said, "Fine. Didn't I already say I was listening? So talk."

"In case you wanna check it out I'm calling from Florida. I did time with Gino's brother."

"How thrilling for you. Now I'm hangin' up, asshole."

"Wait," said the voice. "You been lookin' for a certain rat. I know where he is. The man who did the Zubonis."

The Salamander slammed down his cleaver. "Gimme a number I can call you back," he said. "Don't say another word, just tell me a number."

The caller from Florida repeated it twice. Sal Delicato used a finger to write the numerals in pig blood on a butcher block. Then he untied his apron, washed his hands, combed his hair, snatched a roll of quarters from the cash register and walked three blocks to a pay phone.

"All right, smart guy," he said when the man answered in Florida. "First off, I don't know any Zuboni brothers."

"I never said they was brothers."

"You didn't?" Shit, thought The Salamander, I gotta pay closer attention. "Look, never mind. Just hurry up and tell me what's so important."

"There's this creep in the Witness Relocation Program, you know who I'm talking about. He testified against the Zuboni brothers, the ones you never heard of. Anyway, they gave this creep a new name, new Social Security, the whole nine yards. He's doing real nice for himself. In fact, he's worth a couple million bucks is what I hear."

Sal Delicato said, "You're a dreamer."

"Well, maybe I got the wrong man. Maybe I got some bad information. I was under the impression you people were looking for Frankie King, am I wrong?"

"I don't know no Frankie King."

"Fine. Nice talkin" with you "

"Hold on," said The Salamander. "I probably know somebody who might be interested. What'd you say your name was?"

"Schwartz. Buddy Schwartz. I was with Gino's brother at Lake Butler, Florida. You can check it out."

"I will."

"In the meantime, you oughta talk to Mr. Gotti."

"I don't know no Gotti," said The Salamander. "I definitely don't know no fucking Gotti."

"Whatever."

Over the phone Bud Schwartz heard the din of automobile horns and hydraulic bus brakes and jackhammers and police sirens. He felt glad he was in Miami instead of on a street corner in Queens. At the other end, Sal Delicato cleared his throat with a series of porcine grunts. "You said they gave him a new name, right? This Frankie King."

"Yep," said Bud Schwartz.

"Well, what name does he got at the moment?"

"See, this is what I wanna talk about."

"Sounds like you're playin' games, huh?"

Bud Schwartz said, "No, sir. This ain't no game."

"All right, all right. Tell you what to do: First off, you might already got some problems. The phone lines to my shop aren't so clean, understand?"

Bud Schwartz said, "I'll be gone from here in a few days."

"Be that as it may," said The Salamander, "next time you call me at the shop, do it from a pay booth they got pay booths in Florida, right? And don't say shit, either. Just say you want five dozen lamb chops, all right? That's how I know it's you five dozen lamb chops."

"No problem," said Bud Schwartz.

"Thirdly, it don't matter what phones we're on, don't ever mention that fucking name."

"Frankie King?"

"No, the other one. The one starts with 'G.' "

"The one you never heard of?"

"Right," said Salvatore (The Salamander) Delicato. "That's the one."


Later, drinking a beer on the porch, Danny Pogue said, "I can't believe you done that."

"Why not?" said Bud Schwartz. The asshole double-crossed us. Tried to rip us off."

"Plus what he done to Molly."

"Yeah, there's that."

Danny Pogue said, "Do you think they'll kill him?"

"Something like that. Maybe worse."

"Jesus, Bud, I wouldn't know how to call up the Mafia, my life depended on it. The Mafia!"

"It wasn't easy finding the right people. They're not in the Yellow Pages, that's for sure."

Danny Pogue laughed uproariously, exposing cheese-spackled teeth. "You're a piece a work," he said.

"Yeah, well." Bud Schwartz had surprised himself with the phone call. He had remained cool and composed even with a surly mob heavyweight on the other end of the line. Bud Schwartz felt he had braved a higher and more serious realm of criminality; what's more, he had single-handedly set in motion a major event.

Danny Pogue said, "How much'll they give us for turning the bastard in?"

"Don't know," said Bud Schwartz. "The man's checking it out."

Danny Pogue drained his beer and stared at his dirty tennis shoes. In a small voice he said, "Bud, I'm really sorry I ran away at the monkey place."

"Yeah, what a surprise. You taking off and leaving me alone to get my brains knocked out. Imagine that."

"I got scared is all."

"Obviously." What the hell could he expect? Like all thieves, Danny Pogue was low on valor and high on self-preservation.

He said, "It's okay if you killed that guy. I mean, it was definitely self-defense. No jury in the world would send you up on that one."

Great, Bud Schwartz thought, now he's Perry Mason. "Danny, I'm gonna tell you one more time: it wasn't me, it was a damn baboon."

Here was something Danny Pogue admired about his partner; most dirtbags would have lied about what happened so they could take credit for the shooting. Not Bud even if a monkey was involved. That was Danny Pogue's idea of class.

"I got a feeling they meant to kill us," Bud Schwartz said. He had replayed the scene a hundred times in his head, and it always added up to a murderous rip-off. It made him furious to think that Francis Kingsbury would try it...so furious that he'd tracked down his old cellmate Mario, who steered him to Jimmy Noodles, who gave him the number of the butcher shop in Queens.

Nothing but revenge was on Bud Schwartz's mind. "I want them to know," he said to Danny Pogue, "that they can't screw with us just 'cause we're burglars."

The screen door squeaked open and Molly McNamara joined the men on the porch. Her eyes looked puffy and tired. She asked Danny Pogue to fix her a glass of lemonade, and he dashed to the kitchen. She adjusted her new dentures and said, "The meeting went poorly. There's not much support for my ideas."

One hand moved to her chest, and she took a raspy, labored breath.

Bud Schwartz said, "You ain't feeling so good, huh?"

"Not tonight, no." She placed a tiny pill under her tongue and closed her eyes. A flash of distant lightning announced a thunderstorm sweeping in from the Everglades. Bud Schwartz spotted a mosquito on Molly's cheek, and he brushed it away.

She blinked her eyes and said, "You boys have been up to something, I can tell."

"It's going to be a surprise."

"I'm too old for surprises," said Molly.

"This one you'll like."

"Be careful, please." She leaned forward and dropped her voice. "For Danny's sake, be careful. He's not as sharp as you are."

Bud Schwartz said, "We look out for each other." Unless there's trouble, then the little dork runs for the hills.

"There's a reason I can't spill everything," Bud Schwartz said to Molly, "but don't you worry." She was in a mood, all right. He'd never seen her so worn out and gloomy.

Danny Pogue returned with a pitcher of lemonade. Molly thanked him and held her glass with both hands as she drank. "I'm afraid we won't be able to count on the Mothers of Wilderness," she said. "I sensed an alarming lack of resolve in the meeting tonight."

"You mean, they wimped out."

"Oh, they offered to picket Falcon Trace. And sign a petition, of course. They're very big on petitions." Molly sighed and tilted her head. The oncoming thunder made the pine planks rumble beneath their feet.

"Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm just a batty old woman."

Danny Pogue said, "No, you're not!"

Yes, she is, thought Bud Schwartz. But that was all right. She was entitled.

Molly gripped the arms of the chair and pulled herself up. "We'll probably get a visitor soon," she said. "The tall fellow with the collar on his neck."

"Swell," Bud Schwartz muttered. His ribs still throbbed from last time.

"He's not to be feared," Molly McNamara said. "We should hear what he has to say."

This ought to be good, thought Bud Schwartz. This ought to be priceless.


TWENTY-THREE | NativeTongue | TWENTY-FIVE